From distinguished social historian Gay (Pleasure Wars, 1998, etc.), an unusually vivid account of the development of bourgeois mores during the 19th century, filtered somewhat eccentrically through the life and experiences of Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler.
If any Americans know Schnitzler, it’s as the author of La Ronde, the serial copulation play that (in its English-language incarnation, The Blue Room) propelled Nicole Kidman’s buttocks to the heights of Broadway fame. It’s not the worst introduction, either, for the author makes it clear that Schnitzler was obsessed with sex in both his life and his art. The son of an eminent Jewish physician, he grew up enjoying all the benefits of religious emancipation and was thoroughly integrated into the mainstream of Viennese intellectual life. Although he trained and eventually practiced as a physician himself, Schnitzler was bored with medicine from the start and devoted most of his energies to the theater and to women. He was a precocious success at both. Gay sees the playwright as an archetype of the era—secular, rational, simultaneously self-confident and self-conscious—and he tries to connect incidents in Schnitzler’s life to the broader movements in Victorian society at large. Thus, the young playwright’s humiliation at having his diary (with its scrupulous accounting of his sexual conquests) discovered by his father stands as a metaphor of the newfound sexual ambivalence of the era: The 19th-century bourgeoisie, having lost a religious conception of sexuality, was unsure how to approach the subject. Although Gay’s sketch of the broad movements of the period (science vs. religion, capital vs. labor, etc.) is quite familiar by now, he manages to shade the portrait wonderfully, and his use of Schnitzler as an exemplar of his times humanizes the history marvelously.
A splendid, if idiosyncratic, portrait.